Building a community takes time, commitment, and effort. Though there are no guarantees, there are certain steps you can take to set your company on the path to success. As they say, “experience is the best teacher,” and there’s hardly anyone with more experience building communities than Guy Kawasaki.
If you’re not familiar with Kawasaki’s work, he started his marketing career at Apple where he helped build their initial core user base, coining the term “product evangelist.” After Apple, he founded a number of companies, and is now Chief Evangelist at Canva.
After decades of experience building communities across a number of different industries, Kawasaki developed a 10-step plan anyone can use to build better communities. Below are those 10 steps, with a couple additional insights to help kickstart your community building efforts.
Step 1: Do something great
The only mediocre thing people are fanatical about, generally speaking, are sports teams (and even the worst sports teams are made up of exceptional athletes). Outside of sports, the things people tend to build communities around are things that are exceptional. And that’s for one simple reason, they’re rare.
“You shouldn’t start building a community until you have something great. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be great,” says Kawasaki. So whatever your offering is, ask yourself “is it great?” If the answer is yes, perfect, move on to step 2. If not, you need to put in the work to make it great.
Making something “great” is far easier said than done, but here are a few tactics to try:
Look at the market and identify where the gaps are and create solutions to fill them
Ask existing users what they want from your product – you might be surprised what you find
Leave no stone unturned – perfecting the details can be what sets you apart from the rest
Also, it’s good to remember it’s a continuing process. Just because something was great once, doesn’t mean it’ll continue to be great. Commit to greatness as a way of being, not simply a box to check.
Step 2: Remove speed bumps
Have you heard the story of the $300 million dollar button? The basics are this, a large eCommerce site required customers to sign into an account to make a purchase. Curious, an engineer decided to test out what would happen if they removed that requirement. The results? A 45% increase in purchases, accounting for $300 million in additional revenue for that year.
The morale of the story? People like it when things are simple. Even the additional layer of needing to login is enough to dissuade many from making a purchase. “People’s time is precious...so you’ve got to make things easy.”
Kawasaki suggests removing any clunky sign-up forms, or requirements to register a product to join your community. If you do need to collect any information, make it as simple as possible and try to utilize things like single sign on (SSO) so there’s less effort required.
As Kawasaki reminds us, “The community is doing you a favor, you’re not doing them a favor.” So, make it easy on them.
Step 3: Let flowers blossom
When starting a community you may have expectations of what you want to get out of it, or how you want them to contribute to your company. Throw those expectations out. “Sometimes you have an idea of what you want a community to do...but it’s delusional. Some people will want to help you in one way, and others in different ways.
As noted above, your community doesn’t owe you anything. They’re acting of their own free will. If you try too hard to control how and what they do, you risk losing them altogether. Instead, Kawasaki suggests going with the flow.
“Just let the community do what it wants to do and then water the ‘flowers’ that take root.” By nourishing what happens organically you have a better chance that something will actually grow and blossom. Just because something isn’t what you expected doesn’t mean it won’t be great.
Step 4: Don’t be proud
There’s a lot of pride involved in building a company, or product. Anyone who's taken on the task should be proud of their efforts. And pride can even come in handy when you’re at an early stage. However, it’s a double-edged sword.
Sometimes the same pride that helps motivate you can also stop you from wanting outside help. When you’ve gotten so used to being self-sufficient a helping hand may feel like a handout, but Kawasaki advises against that. “Let people help you...and be happy that they’re willing to.”
The truth of the matter is nothing great is created by anyone alone. And accepting outside help doesn’t diminish the work you’ve already done, it enhances it. If you’re feeling a little uneasy about accepting outside help, take a beat and ask yourself these questions:
Why am I resistant to accept the help?
If I were advising a friend or co-worker, what would I tell them to do?
What happens if I accept the help?
Taking the time to stop and reflect can help free you from that pride and help you accept the generous help others are willing to offer.
Step 5: Provide value
As Kawasaki notes, a community provides lots of value to an organization. As such, it only makes sense that you be willing to provide them something of value, too. It should be a mutualism where both parties get something out of the relationship.
Kawasaki mentions there are multiple ways you can provide value, but two of the most common are social and informational. Social value comes from having a tribe of like-minded people to interact with. This is somewhat inherent in communities, but you can further facilitate those relationships with a specialized tool like Higher Logic.
The other type of value is informational. This could be guides on how to use a product, or insider information about upcoming releases or updates. For example, early on at Apple they put together a step-by-step guide on how to program for a Macintosh and gave that to their community.
There’s no right answer, but you do have to do something, according to Kawasaki. “You have to give them something. It could be documentation, it could be early looks, it could even be asking for feedback.”
Step 6: Find a champion
As with any movement, you need someone to lead the charge. You may have any number of people in your organization who are passionate about your product, but if spreading the word isn’t part of someone’s specific job duties, it can hinder your community building efforts.
“It would be great if everyone in your organization were evangelistic, but you need to make sure it’s someone’s job in the community to create a community, “ says Kawasaki. Your champion can come from any part of your organization, or even from outside it. They just have to be passionate about what you’re doing and have a desire to share that passion with others.
“You never know where they’re (your champion) going to come from.” Kawasaki also suggests not having a clearly defined expectation of a certain type of background your champion needs to have. “If you look for a certain profile for those types, you’ll probably end up being disappointed.”
Step 7: Build on the way up
If you’re an early stage company you may be worried you don’t have the resources to build a community. It’s easy to put it off and wait until you’re bigger to start building, but Kawasaki points out why that’s a mistake.
“Once you’re a trillion dollar company it’s harder to build a community because it’s the safe thing. It’s not as exciting.” Instead he suggests starting sooner and roping people in when things are still new and exciting. “It should be part of the product introduction process.”
For example, if you’re a software company you could have a group of beta testers to help start with your community building efforts. You could also join message boards relating to your offering and start building relationships there.
Depending on your market, product, and industry, the tactic may differ but no matter the case needs to be something you start sooner than later.
Step 8: Take the heat
You may be thinking of a community as a group of people constantly cheering you on and singing your praises no matter what, but that’s hardly ever the case. Or as Kawasaki says, “making a product isn’t all pixie dust and unicorns.”
When people are truly invested in a product, it’s common for them to be critical of it. However, you shouldn’t see that as a bad thing. You should see it as a positive. It’s a sign that they care. And part of running a successful community means taking that criticism on the chin.
“By definition, if you have a community that truly loves you and cares, heat will come your way.” The best thing you can do is embrace that feedback and start a conversation. “Your ability to take the heat will make you even closer to your community, not take you farther from them,” says Kawasaki.
Step 9: Make people feel special
Being an active member of a community takes time, energy, and effort. Though most people take part in a community without the expectation of getting anything tangible in return, it doesn’t hurt when they do.
It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant, just something to show you recognize their contribution. “You could give them t-shirts, or passes to your conference.” Kawasaki is quick to point out that it’s not about the physical things, it’s about building the relationship.
“Building community is an emotional thing...this is a friendship you’re trying to create.” He notes that it’s common to give friends in your normal life gifts, so why wouldn't you do the same with your community?
Step 10: Empathize
At the end of the day, you won’t be able to create a community if you don’t understand the people you’re creating a community for. In order to do that, you need empathy. “You have to put yourself in their shoes, “ says Kawasaki.
The way he suggests doing that is by working backwards. “Working backwards is you go to your prospective customer and ask them what they need from you and let that direct you.” To start, you could ask yourself a couple of questions:
What are our community members going through?
How can we make their lives better?
Answering those questions – and others like it – is a useful exercise to start down the path toward empathy.
Building a bright future
Creating a community isn’t the simplest task, but when you get it right, it pays huge dividends. Though it’s not an exact science, using the above steps will help set you on the path toward success. As Kawasaki says, “this (community) is the center of the universe for a successful company.”
So, be thoughtful, be thorough, and stay committed. We promise you’ll be happy you did.